By Michael Albert at Apr 08, 2008
I am going to Austria for a series of talks. This is the first part of one, and I thought it might be nice to post here, as it answers some questions people often ask about the origins of Parecon...
First, I’d like to thank everyone here and especially the organizers for inviting me. It is a great honor and I hope I can offer something useful.
I generally prefer spontaneous and interactive exchanges, both as a speaker and when attending events. For that reason, I will try to keep this talk, which is prepared in advance to help with translation, and which I therefore have to deliver from a script, relatively short.
So, to begin…back when I was in college, nearly forty years ago, I was in our leftist national student organization, called Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS.
Our chapter of SDS, at MIT where I was a student, was called RL SDS. The RL stood for Rosa Luxembourg, the great German revolutionary.
Rosa Luxembourg once said, “you lose, you lose, you lose, you win.” She meant, I believe, that even major setbacks are part of a process of historic social change.
Rosa Luxembourg gave her life fighting for change but when we win, finally, so will Rosa.
But win what?
The long answer appears in a book I have written titled Parecon: Life After Capitalism, among other places. The shorter answer, I will try to summarize here tonight.
The word “Parecon” in the title of the book is an abbreviation for Participatory Economics. The phrase “Participatory Economics” is in turn the name for a vision of how to conduct economic life very differently than under capitalism.
First we can consider parecon’s origins.
Parecon owes its most distant roots to the first working people who tried to improve their conditions.
Going way back, I am told the first labor strike was in Egypt, about 4,000 years ago.
The Pharaoh then - and as I heard the story this was the only female who was ever a Pharaoh - decided that beyond working six days and being given sufficient pay for food, which was the workers’ usual situation, it might be nice to require them to work for all seven days with no pay at all. Perhaps women Pharaohs had to be especially Pharaonic!
Can you imagine building a tomb, in the desert, cutting and lugging massive rocks in the deadly sun, seven days a week, for zero pay? How long before death?
This lady Pharaoh might not have been very smart, but you have to admit it was a natural progression. If you can maintain nearly murderous conditions, why not try maintaining actually murderous conditions?
I was told the decision to revoke the slaves’ day off and withhold their food supplies provoked the first labor strike.
Parecon stems from that strike and from every effort by working people, and by consumers too, to improve their conditions and incomes.
More recently, revolutionary marxists like Antonio Gramsci from Italy, Rosa Luxembourg from here in Germany, and Anton Pannekoek from the Netherlands - and anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin from Russia and Rudolf Rocker again from Germany, have expanded our insights into what it might mean for people to contribute sensibly to and share justly in society’s product. These revolutionaries and many others began to conceptualize people making economic choices cooperatively.
Movements with similar inclinations have included the left opposition to the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Spanish Anarchists, the early Solidarity movement in Poland, the mass upsurges in Argentina, and perhaps we can hope also the current Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.
But what were more immediate factors that pushed my co-author Robin Hahnel and I toward conceptualizing parecon?
First, back in the 1960s, we continually encountered people asking, what do you want? What is your alternative?
At first we were put off by this question. We thought it was raised to rationalize ignoring current injustice.
Why did we need to know an economic replacement for capitalism to oppose the war in Vietnam?
Why did we need to know how our future economy would operate to oppose corporations crushing workers?
In time, however, we decided the questions were often fair and sincere. We saw that people wouldn’t fight for change without knowing what the change would be.
So the first factor contributing directly to parecon being born was our seeing the importance of having a compelling vision that could overcome cynicism.
When Britain’s Margaret Thatcher gleefully intoned that there was no alternative she meant there was no escape from capitalism no matter how bad capitalism might be.
Thatcher knew what she was saying. We realized we needed to overcome the fatalistic belief she was celebrating.
Wanting Real Classlessness
A second factor fostering parecon occurred due to a woman named Barbara Ehrenreich and her then husband John publishing an essay which helped us arrive at a new view about classes.
Their essay, later published in a fine book called Between Labor and Capital, was about people in modern day capitalism who reside between labor and capital.
This middle group that the Ehrenreichs highlighted didn’t have property, and therefore weren’t capitalists. But this group did have considerable control over their own lives and the lives of workers below and also had higher income and more status than those workers. They apparently weren’t workers either.
To make a long story short, my co-author Robin Hahnel and I saw in Ehrenreich’s work a critical insight for understanding existing economic systems as well as for seeking a new one.
We named the third class between labor and capital, coordinators.
We saw that this coordinator class monopolized control over daily decision making and especially over empowering economic circumstances. We realized that in the absence of capitalists, it could become a ruling class.
In our view this wasn’t a bureaucratic problem. And it wasn’t a political problem. This class was produced and could be elevated to ruling power by economic institutions. It was an economic matter.
Of course having a classless economy required eliminating the economic basis for capitalists to exist and rule. We would have to get rid of private ownership of workplaces in any good economy we advocated.
But beyond that, the new class analysis convinced us that we would also have to eliminate the economic basis for coordinators to exist and rule.
A third big factor in the emergence of Parecon, I think, was Robin’s and my antipathy to markets.
We hated markets. But why did we hate them? What was it about markets that caused us to want them entirely gone?
The need to explain what we despised about markets forced Robin and I to examine allocation generally and markets specifically. We had to fully uncover how market role structures compelled anti social behavior and greed. We had to discern how markets distorted preferences. We had to see how markets established false prices that mis-accounted for ecology. We had to discover how markets produced coordinator class rule even when capitalists were absent.
In the process of all that, Robin and I became market abolitionists. We knew markets were going to be around for awhile, of course. But that didn’t cause us to temper our rejection of them.
The SEP Experience
A fourth big factor in the emergence of parecon was my time working at a left publishing house called South End Press, or SEP for short.
SEP was a project that I and some friends started with the express aim of incorporating our values in our work. We wanted to plant the seeds of the future in the present.
At South End Press this meant we designed jobs that let us share work in creative new ways. We each did a fair share of both onerous and fulfilling tasks. We each did a fair share of empowering and disempowering tasks.
At SEP we also practiced self management in that we used many different voting procedures in different situations, but we always tried to have each participant have an appropriate say over decisions.
Antipathy to Academia
Finally, a fifth big factor in how parecon emerged, or at least in how we wrote and talked about it, was an attitude.
It seemed to us that if we were going to have movements that huge numbers of people not only participated in but controlled, if we were going to have movements where people assessed and refined movement aims and methods as we proceeded, then dialog about aims and methods would have to occur in popular language.
For a book to be about movement aims or methods or even about what’s wrong with society, and to be so obscurely written that normal people couldn’t perceive its meaning, seemed to us counter productive.
To talk about a popular, grass roots, democratic, self managing movement, while writing with language that literally defied comprehension by normal people with lives to live and little or no time for burrowing into libraries, seemed to us flagrant hypocrisy.
And when people told us we were just being anti-intellectual, we laughed and said, come on. We have a gazillion years of schooling. We have multiple degrees. We often work on intellectual problems. We aren’t anti-intellectual at all. Intellect is very good.
We are, however, anti-obscurantist. We are anti-pomposity. We are anti-hypocrisy.
Sure, we can read obscure texts and make believe we understand them as good as the next guy. We just don’t want to do that. We don’t think anyone else should want to do that either. Most important, we know working people won’t have time or inclination to do that, nor should they.
We felt that any useful idea about society, no matter how profound, and no matter how long it may have taken to arrive at, and no matter what means were used, could surely, once it existed, be expressed in plain language for general use.